“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.” –Lao Tzu
We cried, we clapped, we stayed at home, we baked, we homeschooled, we painted rainbows, we stayed 2 metres apart, we zoomed, we locked down, we thanked our NHS, we waived through windows, we did DIY, we wore masks, we lived in bubbles, we went on staycations; but most of all, we made it through 2020!
We did all this and yet we felt bored. The reason: we had not learnt the art of doing nothing, which could have come to our rescue during the cruel pandemic days. Doing nothing would have served an important purpose too, probably unwittingly to most of us, in that it would have provided us a sense of connection, not to others whose mere touch or closeness would be risky, but with ourselves. As a result, we would end up gaining greater clarity about what is important to us at the very core. We would find pleasure in moments of idleness or relaxation. We would also have given ourselves the space to think and feel deeply in a way that can’t happen when we are consumed by the business of our daily activities. We would have enjoyed those moments when our heart is full and we feel lighter as our burdens are lifted, even if it’s just during that limited duration of time.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”, said Blaise Pascal. In 2014, psychologists from the University of Virginia asked a number of subjects to sit in a room by themselves for a period of 6 to 15 minutes at a time. They were asked to simply be alone in the room with their own thoughts. It turned out that people had a very hard time doing this. What they found was that study participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or even daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more, doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think.
We, however, need not feel guilty. For most people it’s nearly impossible to do nothing, because there are so many options available to keep us busy that we have forgotten the art of doing nothing. Therefore, if the idea of spending time relaxing and doing nothing was uncomfortable to us, we were not alone. Our own society has somehow shifted towards prioritizing hyper-productivity, making the notion of doing nothing seem unproductive and inefficient. From rushing around doing housework and chores to getting the shopping done and the dinner cooked, not to mention going to work, we barely have time to stop and breathe, let alone sit down and do nothing for half an hour. Yet the art of doing nothing is something quite powerful that may well change our lives. If at all, there is time left unfilled during the day, there is an urge to fill it with something. No wonder, people have such a hard time relaxing and enjoying moments of leisure or more appropriately, nothingness. Doing nothing is a skill we may have lost touch with but it can be acquired or reacquired with a bit of practice. The potential is there within each one of us – we all had it as kids – so let us at the very least give it a try.
There are many ways to remain inactive or engage in idle activity; it’s an art that one can refine over time. Here are some ideas suggesting creative ways to spend time enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing: Taking an epsom salt bath, disconnecting from technology for a day, reading a good book, performing breathing exercises or pranayama or even yoga, having a day of rest, watching one’s children play, taking time to smell the roses, discovering one’s inner artist, taking an afternoon nap, watching the sunset or staring at the stars at night, having dinner with a dear friend or a loved one. enjoying our food, taking a walk in nature, meditating, et al, the list never ends. The idea to indulge in one or more of these activities is to find pleasure in moments of idleness or relaxation. Enjoy those moments when our heart is full and we feel lighter as our burdens are lifted, even if it may be just during that time.
In the Western world, we have been aping, being busy has become a desirable attribute with it seeming impressive to be juggling an armful of balls, all at one time. As such, people often completely ignore the fact that we’re in a constant state of stress while doing so. However, living in this fight-or-flight mode can lead to health issues such as increased blood pressure, anxiety and depression and reduced sleep which all have an impact on our overall wellbeing. So how can we bring more peace and space into our lives? Why is the art of doing nothing a good idea? And how can we master it?
The answer lies in a visit to Italy where we will soon have ourselves embracing the concept of dolce far niente or “sweetness of doing nothing.” It does not mean being lazy; instead, it’s the idea of finding pleasure in idleness or relaxation. It is the ability to savor an experience, relishing the feeling of wholeness as it fills what is empty. This is a different sort of doing nothing, much more than laying around scrolling on our phone. It offers the opportunity to be in the moment in whatever way we choose and, in the process, improve our life in surprising ways. For Italians, dolce far niente is a part of everyday life, and they do it well. It is observed in families taking a stroll together, sipping wine with friends at a café, enjoying good coffee, and watching the passersby. Noticeably, there is a feeling of presence and truly enjoying the moment as it is. It is simple and pure. Doing nothing can be an event in itself!
Understandably, it is desirable to cultivate the art of doing nothing, if only for a contingency like the pandemic. Well, it is not at all difficult even though it may appear to be so to start with. Initially, the art of doing nothing can be surprisingly overwhelming; with the voice in your head feeling like you have 100 news channels all competing for your attention, as happens to beginners in meditation. But we shouldn’t give up! Start small and trying all the while to keep bringing our focus back to our breath, releasing our thoughts but also not judging ourselves for having them. All the devices we have got used to should be kept away and friends and family asked to leave us alone in peace for the duration of the meditation.
In the beginning try setting aside two minutes a day for a week where one may step away from duties and distractions and just sit with oneself, using this time to breathe deeply into one’s stomach and feel into one’s body. At times the mind may be racing and one might feel as though this ‘relaxation’ is a waste of time, but persevere. With time, the inner chatter will begin to quieten down and one starts to feel peace and reap the benefits of stillness. Once there is mastery over the two minute duration, try to up the alone time to five and then ten minutes at a time. Many of us complain that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to ‘do nothing’ but when one begins to consciously look at one’s schedule, it is seen that there are more moments than one thinks where one could squeeze in 5-10 minutes of nothingness.
Then, when one feels accomplished in finding stillness when just sitting or lying in silence, one may want to attempt practicing the art of doing nothing while out and about in the world. This can be quite difficult as there will be distractions and temptations in one’s way, but focus on being mindful and remembering the breath, one might be surprised at how calm and collected one would manage to stay despite being surrounded by noise or nature.
The final step is bringing the art of doing nothing into one’s everyday life, knowing that it is a practice one can tap into whenever one feels stressed, nervous or overwhelmed. Whether we’re in the workplace, stuck in a traffic jam or have just received an email that has made us angry or upset, take two minutes to practice nothingness and one’ll start to feel the benefits right away.
Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.